Editor’s note: April 2018 is Second Chance Month. Find out more about this important recognition of human dignity.
Alone in a county jail cell, Tish Belk was scared. She had been on the run for almost a year, and now she faced as many as 20 years in prison. Tish had never felt so lost.
An uninvited guest
As Tish looked around her empty cell, her eyes rested upon a Bible. She did not know how it got there, and she tried her best to ignore it. But the book seemed to take on a presence, like an uninvited guest who had barged into the bare concrete room and invaded her solitude. As the book tugged at her, Tish finally relented and flipped it open. She started to read.
Once she had picked up the Bible, Tish could not put it down. She poured through Scripture every day as she read through it chapter by chapter.
"I got to the book of Romans, and I started weeping and crying," remembers Tish. "I knew then that I had to give my whole life to the Lord, because He's the One that kept me through everything that I've been through."
Her "everything" entailed depression, drugs, addiction, and abuse. At that moment, Tish knew that shedding a lifetime of rage and regret would be no easy task. Looking back now, however, Tish says her life has come full circle, and though her journey begins and ends in the same place, her heart has been changed forever.
A vicious cycle
Tish grew up thinking fits of rage were a normal part of day-to-day life. Her father, an ex-Marine and Vietnam vet, suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder. His wife and two children lived in constant fear of setting off yet another explosion of irrational fury.
"We walked on eggshells," Tish says. "[My father] would get very angry and blow things way out of proportion. I swore I'd never be angry like my dad. But those dreaded vows . . . that's where you mess up."
As wrong as it felt, Tish found herself mirroring her father's acrimony. Confused and depressed, Tish tried to get help, but in prescribing medications, doctors unknowingly set her on a path of addiction and on a constant quest for escape.
Nearly raped by a family member, Tish confided in her parents, who did not believe her. "As a child, you think you should be able to tell your parents everything," muses Tish. "When they don't believe you, everything gets crushed."
Tish began mixing her medications with alcohol. As she slid deeper and deeper into the darkness of despair, she turned to illegal drugs—first marijuana, then crack, and finally methamphetamines.
A precarious refuge
Anxious to flee a life cloaked in anger and resentment, Tish graduated from high school and, at just 17, immediately sought a precarious refuge within a young marriage. She had her first child, daughter Courtney, but after a year and a half, her marriage ended in divorce.
When Tish wed her second husband, both were steeped in addiction, so the marriage was volatile at best. Still, the couple had two children together. Christy and Clint entered a world where drugs were commonplace and the rules of the street were law.
This destructive lifestyle tore at Tish and her family. Multiple drug charges began to stack up against her. With her husband already locked away in prison, Tish left her children with relatives and fled. After spending a full year on the run from the authorities, Tish was caught and went to jail—where she finally found the "escape" she had long sought.
Rounding a corner
Almost immediately after her arrest, Tish says, God began revealing himself to her. Three charges on her file should have earned her up to 20 years behind bars, but the judge dismissed most of the charges and sentenced her to two years instead. "The Lord was showing me who He was," says Tish, “. . . and I just knew I had to serve the Lord."
Tish followed this conviction into a Prison Fellowship transformational ministry unit at the Dawson State Jail in Texas. This faith-based, rehabilitative program introduced her to Lyn Wright, a former Prison Fellowship employee who still volunteered in prisons in the Dallas area. "[Tish] was one, from the very outset, that I could see had a love for the Lord that was very real and very different from the average person," says Lyn, who became Tish's mentor.
With Lyn beside her, Tish flourished within the program and the many classes it had to offer. Soon, student became teacher. Tish took over one of the parenting classes and passed on to fellow prisoners what she had learned about being a faithful parent. More than anything, though, she was also eager to share what she had learned with her children.
After her release, Tish says God and Lyn led her to enter an intense, year-long reentry program at Calvary Commission Bible School in Lindale, Texas. The director and counselors were so impressed with Tish, that when she believed God was leading her to leave the program to return to her children, they allowed her the rare privilege to complete the program requirements from home.
Circled back again
Tish has been out of prison for nearly several years. She was a straight-A student while taking general education courses and eventually shifted her focus to addictions counseling, "because that's what God saved me to do."
There was only one obstacle standing in Tish's way: her drug conviction. Academically, Tish was ready to take the board certification tests within one year. However, Texas state law requires a longer period of time between a drug conviction and test administration. Tish learned she would have to wait another three years to achieve her certification.
"I knew that if this is really what the Lord wanted me to do, He would open a door," Tish explains.
But then, a certified counselor who had already gone through the process soon advised Tish to talk to an attorney about having her felony expunged from her record. Tish did just that, and "saw how God [was] orchestrating all of this" when she learned exactly how long it would take to clear Tish's name: one year. She was able to take the board right after she finished school. Tish explains. "God has just made it very clear that this is what I'm supposed to do."
"She has an amazing love for the Lord," says Lyn, "and her passion to serve Him will keep her from ever going back to where she was or who she was."
In a way, though, Tish has gone back.
She returned to her old neighborhood, and is even living in the same home where she was raised. And though it is true that she has circled back to where it all started, she is discovering new and completely transformed beginnings.
Tish is rebuilding loving relationships with her parents, and she shares her faith with her children every day. Working with the youth at her church, Tish also ministers to the kids of the people she used to sell drugs to and do drugs with!
In addition to all of this, Tish completed yet another revolution within her new life when she returned to Calvary Commission Bible School—as a counselor.
“The Lord brings you full circle with the past so you can face it the way you are now instead of the way you used to be. I'm just on a mission for the Lord.”
A version of this Prison Fellowship article was originally published here.